Economic Development in Thurston County is a team sport. A vibrant, robust economy has many moving parts, and it’s up to the businesses, jurisdictions and support organizations to harmoniously knit all the parts together. Thankfully, the Thurston Economic Development Council (EDC) are masters of collaboration, which results in a major boost to one of our region’s favorite industries: craft brewing & distilling.

Thurston EDC barley community development
The barley will be used by brewers and distillers like Well 80, Three Magnets Brewing Company, Sandstone Distillery, and Top Rung Brewing.
Photo courtesy: Thurston Economic Development Council

You may have already been reading this week in ThurstonTalk about how several local breweries and one distillery are crafting beer and spirits from locally-grown grains through a grain variety trial undertaken by Thurston County’s industrious WSU Extension Director, Stephen Bramwell. The Port of Olympia has also been supporting these grain-to-glass efforts that grow adeptly in our region. The end results are grain-to-glass brews that we are all proud to say were locally-grown and made: the collaborations it took to make this all possible are not coincidental.

Aslan Meade, the EDC’s Director of Strategic Alliances, has been at the forefront of connecting the different organizations and businesses from the public and private sectors to create a supply-chain that supports this farm-to-table work in our region. “While it is our job at the EDC to create jobs, we aren’t spending time chasing smokestacks,” says Meade. He knows that the fires are already lit here at home, and he works tirelessly to infuse the mission of the EDC into our community by “creating a dynamic and sustainable economy that supports the values of the people who work and live in Thurston County.”

On a recruitment trip to Skagit County last summer, Meade, Bramwell and Randy Muller, Director of the Port of Chehalis, had a revelation that they needed to approach building the local agriculture and craft beverage economy on a regional scale.  By early 2019, they’d created a Regional Agriculture Development Collaborative, with over 30 public and private partners signing on from Lewis, Thurston and Grays Harbor Counties, and with support from state-level organizations like the WA State Department of Agriculture and the Office of Chehalis Basin.

Bramwell’s work in interviewing regional buyers and growers also lead the team to decide to build a grain storage facility and rail transload at the Port of Chehalis. Moving quickly, the group secured an impressive $800,000 in funding from Lewis County’s Distressed County Fund to extend a rail spur at the Port to a future grain-storage site.

Contacts from the Thurston Craft Brewing and Distilling Innovation Partnership Zone (IPZ) worked on this grain-to-glass project.
Photo credit: Thurston Economic Development Council. Photo courtesy: Thurston Economic Development Council

“You have to understand,” chuckles Meade, “that the reason Stephen is doing the work of his grain trials is not just so we can go to the Tumwater Brewfest and say we are doing so in the name of supporting science. This work is a feasibility study to help farmers in the region find a viable cash crop. Selling grains to a craft market, the growers receive much more than selling what they grow as a commodity. And grains are a great crop to add in for healthy soil rotation.”

The EDC is engaged in work to support the craft brewing and distilling industry at every stage of the supply-chain: from helping to develop higher-paying markets for local farmers to sell to, to building needed infrastructure like storage and processing facilities, to expanding transportation and distribution options.

The hope is that soon regional growers will be able to store their grain in Chehalis and have it loaded by rail to travel to regional markets.  Meade and Bramwell hope one of those markets will be the new Craft District being built in Tumwater. “We are exploring building a grain receiving silo in Tumwater,” Meade says, “so that the new SPSCC Craft Brewing and Distilling educational center will have local grains for their students to brew local beer with. Local brewers and distillers would also be able to access the grain from the Tumwater silo. The more businesses using the grain, the higher the demand, and the more acreage the regional growers can put under cultivation. Which means more dollars to farmers!”

Farming is one of the most noble, yet under-appreciated professions. But it’s definitely not viewed that way by the EDC. “Farming needs to be a viable profession,” states Meade. “Farmers need good paying crops so that the long hours and hard work pay off, and so that they actually make enough money to be able to do things like put their kids through college.”

Thurston EDC barley growers
The Thurston EDC, Port of Olympia, Thurston County, and WSU are working together to develop a locally grown barley for use in brewing and distilling. Photo credit: Stephen Bramwell, WSU

Bramwell also recognizes the EDC’s efforts. “The Thurston EDC’s role in networking was essential to the Port of Olympia’s funding of the 2018 grain trials,” he explains. “Aslan helped connect me to his partners at the Port, and ensured that we got before staff and Commissioners at key moments so they knew of the opportunity to fund this work. He has also helped maintain connections with the City of Tumwater, Experience Olympia & Beyond, and developers at the Tumwater Craft District, and we’re working with this group to try and secure malt storage in the city to connect this farm product to brewers.”

Beside this industry-wide support, the EDC also works individually with many local craft brewers, distillers and cider-makers through one-on-one business advising and coaching and through trainings like the ScaleUp series.  “Top Rung Brewing and Sandstone Distillery went through our ScaleUp training,” Meade says, “and just this week, I set up appointments for two other brewers to come in. One to meet with a business coach about expanding to a new location, and the other to explore creating a non-profit that would allow all the makers in the South Sound to share best practices and collectively work toward market growth.”

“We also currently have a local brewer and a local cider-maker seeking capital through our Thurston Investment Network (ThINk),” he reports. If you’ve been wondering how to make more local investments, the ThINK network at the EDC may be your avenue.

If you’d like to learn more about all of the truly remarkable business services the EDC offers, including ThINk and the new ScaleUp class that starts on September 12, visit the Thurston Economic Development Council website to sign up, or give them a call at 360-754-6320.

If you’d like to raise a glass and learn more about our region’s craft brewing and distilling ecosystem, you can find Aslan Meade at the Tumwater Artesian Brewfest on August 17. Get those glasses clinking in support our local economy and farmers.  After all, it’s for science!

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